Over My Shoulder # 49: Sic Semper

Here’s the rules.

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This is from my class readings, Herodotus (c. 449 BCE), The Histories (trans. G.C. Macaulay and Donald Lateiner); I read it during one of my study jags over at The Coffee Cat. It’s Herodotus’s version of the end of the life of Cyrus the Great, the first King of Kings of the Persian Empire. At this time in his life, Cyrus had gained supreme power over the Persians, taken power over the old Median Empire, and set out on decades of large-scale conquest, subjugating nearly all of the peoples in Asia Minor, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. He then went with his army to the river Aras, in the hopes of expanding his conquest onto the Central Asian plains.

201. When [Babylon] also had been subdued by Cyrus, he desired to bring the Massagetai into subjection to himself. This nation is reputed to be both great and warlike, and to dwell towards the East and the sunrise, beyond the river Araxes and over against the Issedonians. Some say that this nation is of the Scythian race.

. . . 205. Now the ruler of the Massagetai was a woman, who was queen after the death of her husband, and her name was Tomyris. To her Cyrus sent and wooed her, pretending that he desired to have her for his wife. Tomyris, understanding that he was wooing not herself but rather the kingdom of the Massagetai, rejected his approaches. Cyrus after this, as he made no progress by craft, marched to the Araxes and campaigned openly against the Massagetai, forming bridges of boats over the river for his army to cross, and building towers upon the vessels which gave them safe passage across the river.

[. . . The captive king Croesus advised Cyrus to leave behind part of his army, along with preparations for a feast with strong wine, as a snare for the Massagetai warriors, who had no experience with Persian drinks.]

211. . . . After this when Cyrus and the sound part of the army of the Persians had marched back to the Araxes, and those unfit for fighting had been left behind, then one-third of the army of the Massagetai attacked and proceeded to kill, not without resistance, those whom the army of Cyrus had left behind. Seeing the feast that was set forth, when they had overcome their enemies they lay down and feasted, and being satiated with food and wine they went to sleep. Then the Persians came upon them and slew many of them, and took alive many more even than they slew, and among these the son of the queen Tomyris, who was leading the army of the Massagetai; and his name was Sparagapises.

212. She then, when she heard that which had come to pass with the army and also the things concerning her son, sent a herald to Cyrus and said: Cyrus, insatiable of blood, do not celebrate too much what has come to pass, namely because with that fruit of the vine, with which you fill yourselves and become so mad that as the wine descends into your bodies, wicked words float up upon its stream,–because setting a snare, I say, with such a drug as this you overcame my son and not by valor in fight. Now therefore hear this my word, giving you good advice:–Restore to me my son and depart from this land without penalty, triumphant over a third part of the army of the Massagetai. If you shall not do so, I swear to you by the Sun, who is lord of the Massagetai, that surely I will give you your fill of blood, blood-thirsty though you are.

213. These words were reported to him, but Cyrus disregarded them; and the son of the queen Tomyris, Sparagapises, when he sobered up and he realized his plight, entreated Cyrus that he might be loosed from his chains and gained his request. So soon as his hands were free, he put himself to death. 214. He then ended his life in this manner; but Tomyris, as Cyrus did not listen to her, gathered together all her power and joined battle with Cyrus. This battle I judge to have been the fiercest of all the battles fought by Barbarians,[1] and I am informed that it happened thus:–first, it is said, they stood apart and shot at one another, and afterwards when their arrows were all shot away, they fell upon one another and engaged in close combat with their spears and daggers; and so they continued their fight with one another for a long time, and neither side would flee; but at last the Massagetai got the better in the fight. The greater part of the Persian army was destroyed there upon the spot, and Cyrus himself died there, after he had reigned twenty-nine years. Then Tomyris filled a skin with human blood and had search made among the Persian dead for the corpse of Cyrus. When she found it, she let his head down into the skin and doing outrage to the corpse she said this over it: Though I yet live and have overcome you in fight, nevertheless you have destroyed me by taking my son with craft. I nevertheless according to my threat will give you your fill of blood. There are many tales told about the end of Cyrus, but this one is to my mind the most worthy of belief.

–Herodotus (c. 449 BCE), The Histories, Book I §§ 212-213. (Trans. G.C. Macaulay and Donald Lateiner.)

  1. [1][Sic. By Barbarians, Herodotus simply means nations that do not speak Greek. –CJ]

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